Everything is Love Except Your Amnesia About Black Absence in Art
If you know anything about Beyoncé, you know she is the queen of the surprise album drop. So, no one was surprised when she surprised us all with a new joint album with husband and rapper, Jay-Z, titled Everything is Love. Paired with a powerful video that takes place at the Louvre for the track Apeshit, I freaked out with utter joy. Story after story on Instagram I could sense the excitement of all my museum and art world peers as they shared clips and images of the power couple in the famed museum. Then I wondered if the queen bee herself could be enough to convince the art world that we all need to be active participants in creating a more inclusive environment in our field.
The Carters' video for Apeshit was as masterful as the paintings that hung on the walls around them. The couple stood confidently in front of the Mona Lisa, no crowds to disrupt their view unlike what most of us would encounter, yet they are turned to face us. Of course, everyone's first reaction is, "Who else but the Carters could do this?" But let us not forget the dancers who lay on the steps leading to the Winged Victory of Samothrace are black women and at the top of those stairs next to the 8 foot marble goddess, is a black couple. Black dancers sway alongside Beyoncé in front of Jacques Louis David's The Coronation of Napoleon, and there is no subtlety to Beyoncé's placement right below Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon's wife, as Beyoncé takes place as our new modern and black queen. We see white representation in neoclassical paintings interlaced with shots of black love and embrace. Black men are shown kneeling, an act unpatriotic according to President Trump and we see an image of a beautiful but not often read about portrait of a black woman painted after the abolition of slavery in France, Portrait d'une négresse by Marie-Guillemine Benoist. Let us not forget how important it is to see blackness in this space and what it means to have it represented at the Louvre. Behind the awe of Beyoncé and her ability to take over the world's largest museum, is a message we should be paying attention to.
Right now, I fear that blackness has become a trend though I hope I am wrong. Some view socially-charged art by black artists through the lens of a critic as if the work exists in a vacuum, despite observing its historical references, then switch their focus to the next popular distraction. The truth is we all need to be aware of the implications of this cycle and the real life consequences of not moving beyond the critiques we place on art by artists of color. Kerry James Marshall's Past Times set the record for a largest sale by a living African American artist this past May and this is an incredible achievement but doesn't wholly fix the problem of underrepresentation amongst black artists. A study published just last year showed black artists represented by New York galleries only make up about 8.8%. The recent increased interest in black art may change those statistics but does it change the mentality that blackness is more than a commodity? Will we see a sudden rise in art by artists of color then see it disappear as a new trend emerges?
We are allowed to be moved by black art and share the work of black artists but not to forget the context under which it is created. Mark Bradford's Pickett's Charge at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. left me in awe as I walked past eight historically and politically-energized abstract paintings over 40-feet long inspired by French artist Paul Philippoteaux’s nineteenth-century cyclorama of the final charge of the Battle of Gettysburg. Bradford's work plays a major role speaking on the politics of our time despite reflecting on the past. It also reflects Bradford's unapologetic views of black thought and perspectives not often told in mainstream culture. Let us not forget this.
For collectors and dealers, curators and directors, for all those with a new eye towards art by black artists, do you also believe that #museumsarenotneutral? Do you acknowledge your institutions' current failure to represent black artists or artists of color in general? Will you look beyond your immediate network to discover the many great artists of color working today? Will you work for inclusivity at your museum or in your gallery?
Too often we've seen acceptance of black culture when it's convenient but not black people. Let's change this paradigm and be part of a movement that truly celebrates black creativity, not just consumes it. Like Bradford and Marshall, there are plenty more great black artists waiting to be discovered. Let's work to be inclusive within our realm of influence, whatever role that may be. I know I'll be putting in the work to make sure that black voices are elevated so that Beyoncé isn't the only person of color who gets to feel emboldened to step inside a museum and experience art on their own terms. Maybe then everything can be love. ✻
Featured image source: Beyoncé/YouTube